What do I need to think about for my new back porch?
April 18, 2020 9:03 PM   Subscribe

My old back porch is rotting away and it's time to get a new one. Because of the shape of the house and how the land slopes away from the house, it's going to be a pretty big porch. As long as I'm spending money on this, I may as well get something nice, because I'm not planning on doing this ever again. What features should I be thinking about? What features do you like / wish you had on your back porch?

To be clear, this is a big wooden deck that is open to the air, suspended 2-10 feet above the ground. It is not screened in and will have railings so we don't fall off. There are stairs down to the yard.

Do I want built in benches? A wisteria trellis? A whimsical water feature that does something clever when it rains? (I secretly kind of want this, send pictures if you have ideas.)

Since the porch will be supported by poles, what goes underneath? Do I screen off the bottom of the porch with that wooden rickrack or do I install plants?

I am in Deepest American Suburbia, my back porch affords me an excellent view of my neighbors' backyards and some telephone poles. It faces east.
posted by Vatnesine to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A grape and/or kiwi trellis that starts at the ground and grows all the way up and over your porch and acts as a summertime roof that provides delicious fruit. As long as you're ok with pruning.
posted by aniola at 9:13 PM on April 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

I’d think about Trex instead of wood for the new deck. It doesn’t look quite like wood, but it’s pretty close, and then you don’t have the stripping/staining/sealing maintenance every few years to worry about that you do with a wooden deck. I love wood decks but the convenience factor is huge with Trex or something similar.
posted by bananacabana at 9:27 PM on April 18, 2020 [13 favorites]

Where it is 10' off the ground - is there room beneath for a shed or store area? I often put storage under decks.

Plants are fine below a deck but ventilation to the area and the house is important too. I'd tend to train plants (certainly grapes) along wires and maybe a small tree at corners to tie it together visually - if you grow the tree up you'll have a natural umbrella in a few years. Cover remaining areas beneath in porous weedmat to control weeds - tape to walls at back to stop weeds sneaking out.

Careful with benches next to handrails - that is illegal in some jurisdictions - but movable benches are fine ... and you can move them, which is a good idea as this will be a new space - you won't know how you'll use it until you've lived with it for a while, then when you know you can fix the furniture in place.

Will you store wood on the deck , next to house wall? Good idea to have a stronger solid base there.

I have used very heavy gauge cement sheet (¾" to 1") on decks before but it does need painting and you've got to pay attention to joist spacing so it has enough support to avoid cracking.
posted by unearthed at 9:52 PM on April 18, 2020

As the co-resident to a pair of hundred year old+ wisteria vines: keep them far away from your house. Neither of the main trunks of mine are less than 8 feet away from part of the structure (a pergola tucked into an armpit between a porch and the back of the actual house) but it is a constant War Against Legumes From Outer Space.
They grow so fast and want to weasel into structures. And then grow more. Quickly. Widening every stem.

They are beautiful and make lovely cool shade and the fragrance of the blooms is unicorn-esque wonderful, but grow them to shade a structure at the far end of your yard, not near buildings you care about. And plan on rebuilding whatever structure they are supported by. Did I mention they grow really fast?
posted by janell at 10:01 PM on April 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

I would stay far away from Trex brand, it's insanely slippery when it's wet and hot in the summer too. I believe older decks did not have this issue but you can read plenty of recent reviews on line about the issues in recent years.
posted by fshgrl at 10:01 PM on April 18, 2020

Now that I have the Wisteria Warning out of the way:
Do plan on some overhead structure so you can hang lights and some sort of seasonal shade (sails, more drapey shade fabric, rigid panels). If you go with rigid panels, think about where you will store them in the winter.

A natural-gas tap so you can have a permanent gas grill is good. I don’t know if that would be couth on an elevated structure, but it is great that the grill is never out of fuel.

Similarly, a spigot. And if you will use it - a potting sink/ summer hand-washing sink (think about where the drain will go). Give some though to the logistics of winterizing.

Will you want to hang laundry?
posted by janell at 10:10 PM on April 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Barbecue area that’s easy to access for meals indoors and outdoors
Eating area
Shade at the time(S) of day you’ll need it
Rain covering (crank out awning?)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:10 PM on April 18, 2020

Spa/hot tub set into the deck?
posted by GeeEmm at 10:54 PM on April 18, 2020

My deck wish list has a sink, with at least cold water. You could score an old sink and cupboard from a salvage yard and paint/finish to suit your whimsy.
posted by Thella at 10:58 PM on April 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Depending on your climate, you might consider a copper misting system for cooling. I'm in a Mediterranean climate (not much humidity), and these are absolutely amazing on hot days.
posted by Graygorey at 11:14 PM on April 18, 2020

Make the top part of the railings wide enough for putting plant pots on it. Or for a cat to clamber around should you have one.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:12 AM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Is this a covered porch? If so, get a ceiling fan.
posted by kellyblah at 4:09 AM on April 19, 2020

First, not a porch. As you say, it's a deck. Porches have roofs. Also, how big is it going to be? What I wish our 10' x 20' deck had been built with:
- Cross-bracing. The deck was built butted to the top of 10' posts. I could hold the railing and cause the whole thing to sway by shifting my weight back and forth. I added some braces at the tops of the posts to cure that. They're attached with lag bolts, which leads me to my next wish:
- Screws. The entire structure was assembled using nails, except for the sill plate being lagged to the frame of the house.
- Awareness of the correct orientation of the wooden deck planks. A number of them are installed so that they weathered cupped, and hold water when it rains. They're PTL, so they haven't started to rot, but c'mon.
- A roof, and screens. Yes, I wish it was a screened porch. Decks are a distant second choice, unless you're a dedicated sunbather. Useless when it rains, usually too hot in the sun, and a cafeteria for mosquitoes. A screened porch is great when the weather's hot; you can sleep on it.

Not applicable to you, where your under-deck area is apparently steeply sloped, but I wish the builder had poured a concrete patio, instead of laying crushed stone under the deck. No way could I walk out of the ground floor onto that barefoot. I later paid to have a slab poured. It's way more useful now.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:21 AM on April 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

There's a gutter system where flexible troughs hang between the joists of the deck, under the boards you'll walk on, and drain toward a regular gutter at the edge of the structure. The benefit in this case of such a system would be that the space under your deck would basically have a giant umbrella over it. Whether that's actually useful depends on your climate and overall yard layout but I could imagine a dry ground-level nook being fantastic. You could even make that into a screened "porch," without the expense of building an extra room on to your house.
posted by teremala at 4:25 AM on April 19, 2020

Warning about plants overhead. We have a patio with a pergola that has a bittersweet vine growing on it. Much like the aforementioned wisteria, it grows quickly and lushly. It looks fantastic, but has really cut down on the breezes that blow on the people sitting underneath it, which are definitely a wanted feature in the muggy midwestern summers. That being said, something overhead to hang patio lights and plants (in pots!) would be on my wishlist.
posted by sarajane at 4:27 AM on April 19, 2020

teremala, I want that gutter system, for exactly that purpose. Does it have a name?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:28 AM on April 19, 2020

Looks like it's Trex RainEscape! This article gives some other options as well.
posted by teremala at 4:31 AM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks, teremala! That's very useful info.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:51 AM on April 19, 2020

A club I belong to rebuilt their deck using a synthetic product instead of wood. It's totally fine but it doesn't look like wood. We have patio tables with umbrellas which do give some much appreciated shade.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:57 AM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

To make the space under the deck more useful consider installing one or more glass deck prisms. We have two in the roof of an enclosed, roofed outdoor shower without power and even on cloudy days these collect enough light to use it. Probably best to avoid the small version which is, I think, mainly a paperweight.
posted by Botanizer at 5:09 AM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Don't build in seating around the sides because it's an invitation for small kids to climb and potentially topple over the rail, whether you have children or not.
posted by mareli at 5:13 AM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Built-in seating, in my experiences, ends up being more limiting. I'd avoid it, myself.

If the deck is in full sunlight (i.e. no shade) you might want to think about including some mechanism for adding shade for people to be under. Otherwise, you will find that it's just not as enjoyable to be out there as you thought it might be. Now, you needn't go so far as a big expensive retractable awning mechanism, of curse. Maybe some way to string canvasing across part of the deck, in a casual manner?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:17 AM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Build with lighting and sound system in mind - including electric supply.

If not already configured, big aperture from your house with a sliding glass door or similar. Makes for a much greater social flow between deck and house with big parties.

+1 for Thorzdad's notion of a big retractable awning or some less fancy equivalent. Really increases use of deck in practice in my experience.

Build your outdoor stairway way over minimum code. A stairway that is wider and sturdier than required will make the deck and sliding glass door a brilliant new access to your home for delivery of big and heavy appliances, enable installation of lift systems for mobility impaired guests / residents, etc.

Even if you're not doing an outdoor kitchen or hot tub/Jacuzzi now, make sure that your weight rating suffices for them and add to electric (see above), add fresh water supply, wastewater takeaway and natural gas supply. Costs much less to do it now than retrofit. (Hot water supply is probably not necessary and could be very energy inefficient; there are now very compact heating units that can be installed if the outdoor sink wants a hot water supply later, and they're built into hot tubs/Jacuzzi).

With all that space under the deck, consider moving ugly outdoor infrastructure (e.g., air conditioning compressor, whole-house generator) under there if zoning codes permit (may have to route exhaust out to sides), or future-proofing to enable you / someone else to do in future.

Consider having part of the floor of the deck be hinged with storage underneath for seating cushion pads and umbrellas in inclement water, barbecue supplies, etc.
posted by MattD at 7:30 AM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you can afford it, make it out of Cumaru or another South American hardwood. The place I linked to has actual plantations they harvest from sustainably.

Much longer lasting, and really nice to look at too.
posted by notsnot at 10:22 AM on April 19, 2020

Our deck faces west, so we absolutely had to put a shade structure over it. Sounds like you may or may not need the shade part, but my favorite thing about our deck is the color-changing Ikea star lights we strung all over the pergola. It know it sounds cheesy, but on a warm summer night they are mesmerizing and heart-stoppingly beautiful. I feel stupid admitting this, but they have literally brought me to tears before when I've lain down out there and just stared at them.

The pergola is also useful for hanging privacy curtains. Our yard backs up to a 3-story apartment building, so the people on the second and third floors can see right into our yard. It's not like we care THAT much, but sometimes it's nice to be able to close off the view. In our west-facing situation they also double as shade curtains at certain times of the day.

Seconding built-in fans, maybe the kind with an integrated mister. We have to haul standing/box fans out there, both for airflow and to keep the mosquitos away, and it's kind of a hassle. If I were building a deck from scratch, I'd definitely install both ceiling-mount and and adjustable corner-mount fans.

Definitely consider integrated storage. We just have a small shed and it's really not enough --- it would be so useful to have a rain-proof place to store things like cushions, candles, fans, the extra propane tank, etc.

Speaking of propane, I'd love to have some of those restaurant patio heaters and/or a fire table to extend the useful season. Don't know where you live so maybe not applicable to you, but I know I'd really appreciate even just another month of comfort on either end of our summer.

I'm excited for you! Our deck is nowhere near as nice as it sounds like yours will be, and we still love it and get a lot of use out of it.
posted by slenderloris at 10:28 AM on April 19, 2020

100% need lighting for the stairs part. Even if there is sufficient lighting for the deck part itself, the stairs will likely be in shadow. All you need is some really low power illumination on each step to make it clear where your foot needs to go.
posted by trialex at 4:11 PM on April 19, 2020

I used to have a beautiful grapevine hanging over my back porch. It looked so nice, but, unless one is very diligent about pruning/sweeping/harvesting, the whole second half of summer and all of fall becomes stepping-on-eyeballs/fat-racoon season. I ended up having to cut them down (sadly) because all of the falling plant matter (leaves and grapes) had completely rotted my back deck, and I had to tear down the whole thing and replace. Lovely as they are, grapes aren't super practical unless you are a very avid gardener. I was quite surprised by this because my previous house also had grapevines, but they were over grass, so the matter they dropped just made the grass happy. I wouldn't suggest having them overhang a wooden deck.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:14 PM on April 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

My main memory of having decks is that inevitably critters move in underneath, and sometimes that means skunks. (Or raccoons or snakes) If you can figure out a way to build that avoids that problem your future self will thank you.
posted by emjaybee at 9:33 PM on April 19, 2020

I’d include planter boxes, under the windows/against the house and either hanging from or built into the railings. I’d also make lighting integrated - string lights or lanterns that are hardwired, both overhead and footpath lighting on the stairs.
posted by amaire at 1:11 PM on April 20, 2020

To reiterate, unless I misread Vatnesine's post, his under-deck area is steeply sloped. I have assumed that the slope is directly away from the house but it might be along the wall, with the 2' elevation at one end of the wall, and the 10' elevation at the other. Unless they do some excavation, it won't be useful for the purposes a lot of people are proposing, nor will it be attractive as a home for skunks.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:19 PM on April 20, 2020

Under a planked deck is a horrible place for a condensing unit. They run exactly when you want to be sitting on your deck and they are very noisy plus give off a lot of heat that would rise up through the gaps in the deck. Also most condensing units have a minimum overhead clearance that you have to worry about.
posted by Mitheral at 2:40 PM on April 20, 2020

If you don't want to screen in your deck, lay screen under the boards anyway so that when you decide to add them you aren't wondering where all the bugs are coming from.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:24 PM on April 20, 2020

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